What a great start to our tenth year of whisky tastings! Over the years we have had some memorable evenings being educated and entertained by various characters from the whisky industry, and enjoyed many fabulous drams, and our tasting on May 3rd followed on this great tradition.
We were joined by Ian Chang of Kavalan and, in an evening that combined humour and great knowledge, we learnt how whisky can be successfully produced in Taiwan’s sub-tropical climate, and tasted for ourselves the delightful, unique whisky that is successfully made there.
Ian’s own involvement with Kavalan began in a very unusual way. Can you imagine turning up for a job interview to be one of the key figures in the start up of the first whisky distillery ever in a country and admitting to knowing nothing about how to make whisky? Well, that’s more or less what Ian did when he applied to work there. However, his honest and accurate appraisals of the 15 whiskies he was given to nose and taste, using descriptors such as ‘Grandma’s wardrobe’ and ‘nail varnish’, ensured he got the job – and that Kavalan acquired a talented individual whose roles now encompass Whisky Creation & Market Development, Master Blender & Director of Global Export, and who has earned both the distillery and himself numerous accolades. Ian is a man with a deep passion for what he does (his first thought in the morning is of whisky), and this passion shone through during the tasting.
Situated in Yilan, not far from Taipei, Kavalan distillery is named after the earliest tribe to inhabit the area. Building commenced in 2005 and just 9 months later the first spirit was ‘born’ at 3.30pm on 11th March 2006 – the culmination of a dream long held by Mr Lee, founder of the large King Car food and beverages group, and a momentous date as never before had distillation for whisky taken place in Taiwan.
The site was chosen for the pure and abundant water supply from the nearby mountains, and is set in a scenic environment that could rival that of Scotland. However, although Ian and the team learnt a lot from research in Scotland, right from the start they knew that to succeed they would have to harness their own very different hot and humid climate, to work with it rather than fighting against it. Using methods that Ian describes as 70% science and 30% art, from distillation through to maturation they strive to achieve a good, consistent spirit, which ensures the quality of the whisky and aids the final blending. The style of whisky they are aiming for is fruity and smooth.
Taiwan’s climate is not suitable for growing barley and so 90% is imported from the UK and 10% from the rest of Europe. Once it is milled and mashed the fermentation of the wort is carefully controlled in washbacks with jackets that keep a consistent temperature before being double distilled in pot stills, with the spirit cut being carefully judged.
Then it’s on to the maturation, arguably one of the most important elements of the whole process as the interaction between wood and whisky is so strongly influenced by climate. Maturation in Taiwan is much faster than would be the case in Scotland, but the downside of this is that the Angel’s share is from 8-12% (and in one case 15%!) of the cask. Its hot summers lead to rapid extraction of flavours and colour from the casks, whilst cold winds with high rainfall in winter produce good oxidation that adds depth and additional flavours. Keeping to the principle of working with the climate, around 95-98% of maturation takes place in American oak, as the rapid extraction of flavours that heat brings about would lead to bitter flavours if the more highly tannic European oak was used in any quantity. Conversely, this fast extraction means a rich, deep colour soon appears in the whisky so definitely no caramel needs to be added! Additionally, the temperature in the 5 storey warehouse at Kavalan varies greatly, ranging from 27 degrees C on the ground floor to 42 degrees at the top. To counteract this small 200l casks are used at the bottom of the warehouse moving up in size to 500l on the top floor and thus a certain consistency of maturation can be achieved without having to keep moving casks.
Ian summed up all of these strategies extremely well when he said ‘maturation is merely a process of transformation’ and that the Kavalan whiskies are an example of ‘maturation redefined’. The whiskies themselves demonstrated just how successful this way of working is, with the tasting taking in a cross section of the expressions in the range.
For full tasting notes on each of the whiskies then check out Kieran Smyth’s blog but here’s a brief rundown of what was tasted.
We started with the Kavalan Classic (40%), where maturation in American oak allows the characteristic tropical fruit flavours to shine through, and which proved to be richer than I expected and served as a great introduction.
We then moved on to the Concertmaster Port Cask Finish (40%), which was, along with the King Car Conductor, the most popular whisky on the night. This was one of those whiskies that needed little, if any, water and the finishing in port barriques was just spot on. Beautiful berry fruits and a barley sweetness that, for me, had overtones of Horlicks (in a good way!).
The King Car Conductor (46%) that followed was designed to be a complex whisky to represent the diversity of the King Car conglomerate. Fruit is still the main theme but in this expression the tropical fruits are joined by tangy green apple, a thread of vanilla pod and other flavours that provide great enjoyment as they are ‘unpacked’.
New to the UK last year, the Podium (46%) is matured in a mix of new and refill American oak, and is an elegant whisky where the fruit is counterbalanced with the vanilla of the oak.
The Solist Ex-Bourbon Cask Strength we tasted was at 58.6%, and came with the dry aside from Ian that ‘There’s no such thing as strong alcohol, only weak men!’ The maturation warehouse is viewed as an orchestra, with each whisky playing its part, and hence all the single casks are viewed as the ‘Soloists’ (but with the word slightly amended to Solist). This version had an enticing light herby/spicy/oaky nose and the bourbon cask tempered the power of the alcohol well so the characteristic Kavalan flavour profile was not overwhelmed.
Our final whisky was the Solist Vinho Barrique (57.7%), which was winner of the World’s Best Single Malt 2015 in the World Whisky Awards. The cask management for this one is particularly interesting as the STR process is used – Shave, Toast, Rechar. This breaks down the lignins in the wood, producing a new surface for the wine to interact with and leading to the complex flavours in this whisky. I think it’s fair too say this split opinion in the room but for me it was a real ‘WOW’ whisky. A gorgeous rich and opulently fruity nose was backed up by big, full on flavours that you could be forgiven for thinking had been imbued by a sherry cask but that also had a subtle tropical taste – gorgeous.
Ian made a very touching mention at the end of the tasting to Dr Jim Swan, a very sad recent loss to the whisky world. He was consultant on numerous distillery start ups (one of the most recent being the Cotswolds Distillery) and Ian had worked with him for many years. He viewed Dr Swan as being like the Kung Fu Master to his Grasshopper, and I’m sure Dr Swan must have been very proud of how his pupil has developed.
Finally, on a personal note, as we celebrate 10 years of tastings we would like to say a huge thanks to all the presenters who, like Ian, come along to share their knowledge and their stories with humour and generosity of spirit (if you’ll pardon the pun!). Also, a huge thanks to all our suppliers who support us so well, and to our wonderful customers, who come along and help to make the evenings such a success.
Fran and Ken
Many thanks to Brian Shaw of Brian Shaw Photography for the images